Visitors and locals stopping by Alamo Plaza today were welcomed by more than 400 people – most armed with handguns, rifles and semi-automatic weapons. The armed force was making a very visible call for the City of San Antonio to repeal its open-carry firearm ordinance. [For more photos of the day's activities, see gallery below story.]
Despite the strong police presence in the plaza today, I was terrified.
I know that carrying a gun and a "Come and Take It" flag in public doesn't necessarily make you any crazier than a person in a suit armed only with their bare hands. But a gun in hand sure makes it easier for people to kill people, and tensions were high as a handful of anti-gun protesters made their way through the crowd. Many handguns were literally loaded. Thankfully all confrontations were verbal.
Two men who asked not to be named carried brooms over their shoulders like soldiers would carry rifles.
"We're just here to clean a little refuse of the street," one of the men said, feigning ignorance while talking to a man with a rifle slung around his shoulder and a "Don't Tread on Me" tattoo. Other pro-gun attendees laughed at the mockery and took pictures with the two men.
Vendors sold shirts with pro-gun slogans, and it seemed every fifth person was handing out flyers about a political candidate or conspiracy theory. Petitioners working to recall Mayor Julián Castro because of his support for the recently passed non-discrimination ordinance found a few new supporters and signatures.
While the main message of gun law repeal was clear, chaotic undertones were not far away, ranging from anti-gun law to anti-Obamacare. Equally mixed was audience demographic. All races, all ages, all stereotypes – soccer moms, cowboys, hipsters, suits, etc. – were on hand.
In the middle of the crowd, a four-year-old girl sporting a pink plastic gun and holster, clutched her father's neck. She was slung around him like the grown-up rifle he carried on his own back. If not for the guns, they would have looked like any other father and daughter out for an afternoon stroll on the Alamo Plaza.
Every instinct in my body was telling me to leave. I'm just not used to seeing guns in public – let alone more than 400 in a public plaza. It made me think about how easy it is to get and carry a gun in Texas. There is no purchase permit, registration of firearms, or licensing of owners for rifles and shotguns in Texas. The sale of handguns is more tightly regulated. Carrying weapons in the open is not legal, in the city or around the state, and a concealed weapons permit is required for handguns. San Antonio's city ordinance bans any and all guns in public parks, public meetings, school events, and political rallies, parades and meetings.
Rally organizers worked with the SAPD to allow open carry for the duration of the rally at Alamo Plaza and subsequent sidewalk march to Travis Park where a second, more informal rally was held (sans sound system and stage of Alamo Plaza).
"Technically, on any other day, they could charge us all with misdemeanors," said C.J. Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, one of several local chapters of organizations that regularly protest gun laws. Grisham was one of more than 10 scheduled speakers at Alamo Plaza including Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, various anti-gun law group founders and political candidates.
I found little solace in hearing from rally organizers that there were "mandatory chamber checks." Meaning, to comply with an agreement made with the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD), firearms could not be loaded and were supposed to have blocked chambers. I watched as several people crossed intersections, rifles strapped to their back, and entered the crowd without any interference.
"They've corralled us as much as they can to keep an eye on us," said Victoria Montgomery, public relations director for Open Carry Texas, speaking about the more than 50 police officers on bikes, in patrol vehicles, and dressed in plain clothes who were in the vicinity. While Montgomery said she understood the need for police presence, but "I don't think it's necessary to this extent."
Just a few blocks down the street, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America hosted about two dozen advocates for tighter gun laws. A pair of police officers stood by.
Patrolman Harold Anderson stood with several other officers on bicycles across on South Alamo Street, visually surveying the swelling pro-gun rally.
As far as the no-bullet-in-chamber rule goes, "It's basically the honor system," Anderson said. "If any one points a gun at someone or holds it in an aggressive manner," they'll be removed and possible charged.
The SAPD didn't expect any violence, he said, "but we to anticipate the worst. Our presence here is for the public."
Overall it was a peaceful rally of people and their guns that took place in downtown San Antonio on Saturday. It's fantastic that these organizations can exercise their right to free speech in such a public space. However, while it made for a great photo opportunity, I do find it strange that SAPD made an exception to the gun ordinance to allow loaded weapons on very public grounds during a very political rally – how often are exceptions made for ordinances involving public safety? Hopefully not often because I'm glad I don't have to walk though a sea of guns on a regular basis.